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The real lesson of this fiasco is that we need elected police chiefs

The Commons row on Monday over the Damian Green arrest was a distraction from the most pressing issue, say Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell. We already have a politicised police: so let the voters decide

10 December 2008

12:00 AM

10 December 2008

12:00 AM

Perhaps now you’ll understand what we’ve been banging on about, we localists. For the better part of a decade, we’ve campaigned to place the police under elected sheriffs. Some of our chief constables, we contended, had cast off the cables that once attached them to public opinion. They were concentrating on speed cameras and hate crimes and community relations when the rest of us wanted them to concentrate on being unpleasant to scoundrels. The best way to align the police’s priorities with everyone else’s, we argued, was to place our constabularies under locally elected representatives.

You disagreed — you, Spectator readers in particular. Our ideas, you felt, were downright un-British. They might do for people in hot countries whose leaders wore sunglasses, but one of the glories of Britain’s constitution was the independence of its public servants. We heard the same objections over and over again, voiced by stiff-backed former army officers and stout-hearted Tory matrons. The last thing the country needed, you told us, was a politicised police force.

Well — with respect, Colonel, Madam — what the devil do you imagine we’ve got now? Even in hot countries where the leaders wear sunglasses, it would be considered disproportionate to send 20 anti-terrorist police against a middle-aged opposition politician, his wife and one of their teenage daughters.

What we’ve seen is a political arrest — a political arrest, for heaven’s sake. It may well be that, as ministers claim, they didn’t authorise the action — though their denials have been carefully phrased and lawyerly. But that isn’t really the point. The Home Office official in charge of the investigation, Sir David Normington, is also in charge of appointing the next Met Commissioner. Three of the senior officers involved in authorising the raid are in the running for that job. Even the most authoritarian states rarely involve direct operational commands to the police by interior ministers: senior policemen can usually be relied on to anticipate the regime’s wishes.

After all, l’affaire Green was hardly a one-off. It came after the overt lobbying by police chiefs of MPs over ID cards and 42-day detention. The respectable classes, brought up to believe that the police were broadly on their side, have felt increasingly alienated. Every time they read of a blackguard going unmolested while a law-abiding citizen is arrested for being in possession of a penknife, or of street crime spiralling while money is channelled into hiring more diversity advisers, they feel less inclined reflexively to support the rozzers.

This is not the fault of police officers themselves who, for the most part, do their jobs bravely and professionally. The trouble is that certain of their chiefs judged, correctly, that they would be promoted if they appeared to be more interested in condemning racism than in biffing malefactors. Sir Ian Blair, in particular, drained the reservoir of public goodwill towards the boys in blue. It became obvious some time ago that the Met Commissioner had lost the support of Londoners. Yet it became equally obvious that he didn’t mind in the slightest, provided he retained the support of the government. When the London Assembly passed a motion of no confidence in him in July, he taunted members with their weakness: ‘I have stated my position. If you have the power to remove me, go on.’ A classical artist, wishing to symbolise the way in which power in modern Britain had shifted from elected representatives to the permanent apparat, could have done no better than to depict that tableau.

Some senior policemen, accustomed to the public’s automatic support, believe that they can drown out any such criticism by banging the old drum of ‘police independence’. But fewer and fewer people are disposed to answer the call. In the aftermath of the raid on Parliament Andy Hayman, who was until recently the senior anti-terrorist officer at the Met, wrote a furious article in the Times. What bothered him was not the crassness of the incursion itself, but the presumption of Boris Johnson in opposing it. ‘The police are increasingly agitated about how the political class — in particular the Mayor of London — has handled the Damian Green affair,’ he complained. I mean, who do these elected representatives think they are? Boris may have the third largest personal mandate in Europe, but his belief that this entitles him to represent his voters is, avers Hayman, ‘nothing less than political interference in operational policing’. If so, let’s have more of it. Boris is one of the few figures to emerge from the wretched business with credit.

Here, though, is Hayman’s key sentence. Read it slowly: ‘When I was a chief constable, I regularly called my police authority chairman to appraise him of sensitive operations. He would occasionally seek clarification but the last thing I expected was for him to question in public whether the operation was appropriate.’

You see? For the people’s tribune even to question a copper is objectionable to our public sector elites. Hayman unwittingly provides the neatest possible demonstration of what is wrong with the current model. As things stand, police authorities tend to see it as their job to defend ‘their’ chief constable from public criticism; but their job is, of course, precisely the opposite. A state in which politicians meekly do whatever the police want is the very definition of a police state.

Chief constables might reasonably argue in their defence that they can hardly avoid taking political decisions. Simply to express a view about ID cards is a political act. Refusing to investigate Damian Green would, after its fashion, have been a political act. The question, in other words, is not whether police chiefs should be political, but whether they should be elected.

In our book The Plan, we advocate a wholesale shift of power in Britain from standing bureaucracies and quangos to democratic office-holders. One of our proposals is for elected sheriffs who would run their constabularies on a county or city basis, except where there is already an elected mayor to do that job — currently only Greater London. Sheriffs would control their budgets and priorities: if they wanted to spend their resources on, say, speed cameras rather than foot patrols, they would have to seek re-election on that basis.

Ideally, sheriffs would be in charge, not only of pursuing criminals through the streets, but also of pursuing them through the courts. They would be responsible, in other words, for prisons, community service and young offenders. They would have the power to set local sentencing guidelines — although not to interfere in specific cases.

Since we first set out this proposal, it has been picked up, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, by all three parties. Even Labour is now proposing a milk-and-water version of the idea. Inevitably, a fight-back has begun. And, equally inevitably, it is being led by those who feel most threatened: chief constables and existing police authority appointees.

The case against local democracy takes three broad forms. First, it is argued that there will be asymmetric law enforcement. Absolutely right. It might happen that, for example, the sheriff of Kent decided that shoplifters should serve custodial sentences, while the sheriff of Surrey favoured alternative penalties. One of two things would then happen. Either Kentish crooks (and crooks of Kent) would flood across the county border in such numbers that the people of Surrey would elect a tougher sheriff. Or the people of Kent would get sick of funding the requisite number of
prison places. At which point, their sheriff might decide on more imaginative solutions. He might, for example, decree that shoplifters should stand outside Bluewater with a placard saying ‘Shoplifter’.

We can’t predict exactly what would happen: that’s the essence of localism. But we can safely say that there will be trials and innovations, mimicry of what is working elsewhere, a natural spread of best practice.

Second, it is argued that elections might lead to undesirable outcomes. Articles have started to appear in the Times (which is increasingly resembling the Met’s in-house magazine) warning that if you let people choose whomever they want to run the police, you might get the BNP. Well, yes. If you allow people to elect their MPs or local councillors, you might get the BNP. But, as a rule, you don’t. Despite receiving the most disproportionate coverage of any party in Britain, the BNP has never won a parliamentary constituency and occupies just 0.3 per cent of council seats. Anyway, you can’t run a country on the basis of predicting the worst imaginable outcome and then doing everything to prevent it: if you did, you’d never allow any elections.

The third objection is the most common: that the experts know best, that they will serve the public more disinterestedly than vote-grabbing politicians. This sounds plausible, but it rarely turns out to be true. We all like the idea of the expert: the professional who can rise above the partisan scrum. The trouble is that no such person exists. We all have our prejudices and assumptions, the expert more than most if by ‘expert’ we mean someone who has spent his entire career in one field. The essence of representative government is that we elect people to ensure that state employees work for the rest of us, not for themselves.

The chief cause of misgovernment in contemporary Britain is precisely the absence of government control. Ministers, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, have created a system that they no longer control. Quangos beget other quangos, agencies commission new advisory panels, just as Asimov’s robots had learned to programme one another without human intervention.

The Baby P case was a horrible example of what happens when ‘let the experts get on’ is taken to its logical conclusion. A series of official blunders leads to the worst imaginable consequence, and when the leader of the opposition gently wondered why none of the functionaries involved was being held responsible, he was howled down for making the issue ‘party political’. When exactly did ‘party political’ become a term of abuse? Didn’t our fathers fight a series of wars to secure the principle that state officials should answer to Parliament?

Here we reach the true tragedy of the Damian Green business. While the violation of Parliament’s prerogatives was scandalous, Parliament itself has connived at the surrender of those prerogatives, handing its powers to human rights judges, Eurocrats, quangoes and agencies. We are British enough to resent the incursion. We huff and puff and remind each other about Speaker Lenthall and the Five Members. But we know in our bones that we are merely defending the outward form of parliamentary sovereignty. The substance was abandoned long ago.

The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain by Daniel Hannan MEP and Douglas Carswell, MP is available at or through

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